The trouble with eternity is that it never ends. Last night in the French capital, England spent what seemed like forever attempting to impose themselves on a South African side good enough to reach the final of this tournament and did not, even for a moment, look like managing it. Worse still, there is no prospect of a conclusion to the misery. The reigning champions must now win their two remaining games to be sure of qualifying for the knockout stages, and as those matches are against two volatile bands of Pacific Islanders; the next fortnight has the word "peril" stamped all over it.
They will not be relishing the meeting with Samoa a week today, that's for certain. Unable to launch more than a tiny handful of semi-serious attacks because of their continuing frailty at the line-out, they were swept aside by a Springbok team who must have anticipated a far more meaningful scrap, even from an England outfit so low on confidence and so undermined by injury to the few natural playmakers they decided to select for this competition. The paucity of their effort was shocking. It was their heaviest defeat in World Cup history and the first time they had failed to trouble to scorers since losing 18-0 to the same opposition in Cape Town more than nine years ago.
Fourie du Preez was the principal architect of South Africa's victory, not that they particularly needed a constructive talent on the scale of Sir Christopher Wren. The scrum-half from Pretoria had been described as " the most intelligent No 9 in the world" by the England coach Brian Ashton before the game, and he duly out-thought his opponents in the way a professor might run intellectual rings round a six-year-old. By the time he left the field after 71 minutes of high-class activity, his team were 33-0 ahead. To recoin a cliche, England were lucky to have that many.
Du Preez hurt the holders time and again, in all areas of the field and all phases of the game. After five minutes, he supported JP Pietersen so cleverly that despite Jason Robinson's successful tap-tackle, he was able to flick a pass to Juan Smith, who completed a try straight from chapter one of the open-side flanker's manual. After his long kick upfield failed to produce a second try – Jaque Fourie, the centre, fumbled as he stretched for the line – he took it upon himself to intervene again seconds before the interval, this time easing Pietersen over the England line with a scoring pass that could not conceivably have been better timed.
England offered next to nothing in response, apart from the odd soft-shoe shuffle from Robinson, who at least engaged a Springbok tackler or two. Sadly for Robinson, his last foray into South African territory ended abruptly and painfully as his left hamstring went twang. The former captain packed in club rugby at the end of last season and will formally retire at the conclusion of this tournament. Sadly, his tournament appears to have run its course already.
Twenty points to the bad at the interval – they really could not complain, having fouled up any number of line-outs and kicked poorly out of hand – England withdrew their own scrum-half, the over-matched Shaun Perry, and replaced him with the more experienced Andy Gomarsall in an effort to bring proceedings under a semblance of control. Instead, they handed Percy Montgomery two more penalty shots at the sticks. In the final quarter, the Boks rubbed it in with a second try by Pietersen, created once again by the rampaging Du Preez, and one last goal from Montgomery. England left the field to whistles of derision. They deserved no better.
Afterwards, the head coach Brian Ashton refused to concede that this performance was more poverty-stricken than the one against the United States in Lens. "The whole context of the game was different," he said. "I'd venture to suggest that South Africa are a better side than the Americans. If we had played here as we did last Saturday, the Boks would have scored 80. We didn't help ourselves in the first half, but we showed some resilience after the interval. I felt some players stepped up to the mark."
Some? It was stretching a point. England's back three had their occasional moments – Josh Lewsey was a brick in defence during a desperate opening 40 minutes – but with Robinson among the badly wounded, that area of the side will have to change ahead of the meeting with Samoa. So too will the midfield – and not simply because Jamie Noon, the Newcastle centre, left the pitch on a stretcher, his knee apparently in a nasty mess. Mike Catt had a grim night with his punting, while the jury considering the case of Andy Farrell – is this man an international union player, or is he not? – must spend another few nights locked away in a hotel. Farrell was no worse than most of his colleagues, but he was no better either.
Both Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley may be back on their feet for the Samoan date, and there is little doubt that England missed them here. Then again, the Boks played without their best flanker, the suspended Schalk Burger, and their best centre, the injured Jean de Villiers. Had Pierre Spies, their exhilarating No 8, been here in France rather than at home fighting a lung condition, the chasm between the two teams might have been far wider than 36 points.
"Outside-halves are important and it was tough on England to lose two of them," said the Springbok coach Jake White, generously. But there are important people throughout a rugby team, and last night, the champions struggled horribly in areas wholly unaffected by fitness issues. They showed nothing that was of the remotest concern to the South Africans, leaving aside the odd driving scrum. The Samoans can smell an upset.
England: J Robinson (unatt); J Lewsey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), A Farrell (Saracens), P Sackey (Wasps); M Catt (London Irish), S Perry (Bristol); A Sheridan (Sale), M Regan (Bristol), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: A Gomarsall (Harlequins) for Perry, h-t; L Moody (Leicester) for Rees, 54; G Chuter (Leicester) for Regan, 58; S Borthwick (Bath) for Shaw, 58-62 and 83; M Tait (Newcastle) for Robinson, 60; P Freshwater (Perpignan) for Sheridan, 83; P Richards (London Irish) for Noon, 85.
South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); JP Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), F Steyn (Natal Sharks), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F Du Preez (Blue Bulls); O Du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), BJ Botha (Natal Sharks), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), W Van Heerden (Blue Bulls), J Smith (Free State), D Rossow (Blue Bulls).
Replacements: J Muller (Natal Sharks) for B Botha, 52; R Pienaar (Natal Sharks) for Habana, 58-64 and for Du Preez, 71; C J Van der Linde (Free State) for Du Randt, 65; A Pretorius (Golden Lions) for James, 75; B Du Plessis (Natal Sharks) for Smit, 75; R Skinstad (Natal Sharks) for Smith, 75; W Olivier (Blue Bulls) for Steyn, 81.
Referee: J Jutge (France).Reuse content